Lots of people hate to “brag” (talk about) their own accomplishments.
But in today’s hyper-stressed, competitive, and under-resourced work environment, is it realistic to think that people will just notice what you’ve accomplished? Probably not.
The good news, though, is that there are totally non-obnoxious ways to call attention to your success — and one of the best is telling success stories.
Success Stories Are a Great Way to Share What You’ve Achieved
Telling a story is different than many of the ways that we communicate for business. These include:
- Reciting facts;
- Giving directions;
- Asking questions; or
- Providing a chronological (step-by-step) account.
Instead, a good story will shape the information being delivered, so that it makes a certain pre-determined point in a way that holds the listener’s attention.
With a business success story, your point is always to highlight something that you did well. (And if you’re telling that story during a job interview — where everything you say should ideally illustrate what a great hire you would be — the point isn’t just that you’ve had success; it’s that you will create more success if this new company hires you.)
The Structure of a Good Story
Unless you’re writing epic poems or experimental fiction, what makes a story be a “story” is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Think: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy wins girl. Or, as these images from the movie Casablanca illustrate: Boy meets girl; boy messes up with girl; boy loses girl.)
- In the beginning, something happens. (Filmmakers call this something “the precipitating event,” because it leads to everything that follows.)
- In the middle, our hero (that would be you!) struggles to deal with the fall-out from whatever happened in the beginning. He or she takes action, overcomes obstacles, and tries to find the path to success.
- And in the end, things get resolved, and the audience gains a sense of closure that is often hard to come by in real life. (That’s one of the reasons we love stories!)
The Structure of a Business Success Story
To talk about a business success, all you have to do is translate the concepts of beginning, middle, and end into business-speak, like this:
- Challenge (Beginning): You identified, or were suddenly confronted with, a challenge, a crisis, or an unmet need. This could be anything from an unhappy client to finding out that your entire North American manufacturing operation had to be shut down because of bacterial contamination.
- Actions Taken (Middle): The middle part of your success story starts with your (and your team, if appropriate) giving the challenge appropriate thought, research, consultation, etc. Having analyzed the challenge, you (and your team, if they were involved) then decided on a course of action that you thought would work. You took action, met obstacles, overcame the obstacles, and adjusted your course as needed.
- Outcome (End): General stories can end in failure or tragedy (think of Romeo and Juliet, where the hero ends up dead), but in business stories, failure is not an option. Instead, you either end by successfully solving the problem, or — if things got really bungled — by learning enough from your mistakes that you’ll solve it more smoothly and easily next time.
That’s worth repeating, because any story can be a success story if you define “success” as learning from what happened.
The other thing you want to do in a success story is — while giving credit to others who were involved — strongly imply that success was made possible by your own courage, foresight, wisdom, initiative, etc.
You don’t need to actually say this, if you’re worried about sounding obnoxious. But your story should make clear that you were instrumental in saving the day.
Here’s a Success Story of Mine, to Illustrate the Format
Challenge: Last month, I got a call from a research chemist — let’s call him George — who was about to be interviewed for a major grant. He didn’t have a clue how to explain his work to non-chemists, and wanted to know if I could help him, fast!
Actions Taken: George brought a 40-slide PowerPoint to his first speaker coaching session. I didn’t understand a word of it. So over the next few hours, we started from scratch to create a presentation that lay people would understand. Using the Instant Speech format, we created a simple, 15-slide deck, and came up with metaphors like comparing the action of a new “sticky” molecule to the way gluten holds bread together.
Outcome: Two weeks later, George called to say that his project was going to be fully funded — in spite of some very stiff competition. I’m very proud of that, and really hope that his work succeeds.
Practice Your Success Stories
The best storytellers are people who tell a lot of stories, so practice your success stories a lot, both alone and by telling them to others.
When you’re practicing alone, try looking into a mirror while you tell the story. This will help you see what your eventual audience will see, and will let you catch little nervous gestures that might undermine the story you’re telling.
Most of all, try to stay relaxed and conversational when you practice success stories — or in fact, any aspect of public speaking. Don’t strive for perfection, which is impossible; strive for ease.
And if you’re still not convinced that you should tell success stories, consider this famous quote from Rabbi Hillel:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?